Why Does My Dentist Perform an Oral Cancer Screening?

March 9, 2023

It’s Happens as Part of Your Twice-Annual Exam, and for Good Reason

A tooth photo

Oral cancer isn’t considered one of the deadliest cancers in the United States – in fact, lung cancer is the leader.

However, the American Cancer Society estimates that oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers still occur at a rate of 54,540 new cases in 2023. The organization also estimates there will be about 11,580 deaths from it this year.

That’s why your general dentist performs oral cancer screenings during your exam and cleaning. Spotting early signs of oral cancer improves the odds of it being cured.

Who Is at Risk for Oral Cancers?

Oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers are more common in older white men than any other demographic – but that doesn’t mean anyone else is immune.

The American Cancer Society reports that overall incidence rates increased by less than 1% per year in women from 2015 to 2019. However, during that time frame, cancers linked with human papillomavirus (HPV) infection increased yearly by 1.3% in women and 2.8% in men during the same time period.

These Factors Increase the Risk of Oral Cancer Incidence:

  • Heavy alcohol use
  • Tobacco use of any kind, including pipes, snuff, cigarettes, and chew
  • History of significant sun exposure or exposure to other UV rays (which increases the risk of lip cancer)
  • Previous oral cancer diagnosis
  • Oral HPV diagnosis
  • Gender – men are more likely to develop an oral cancer
  • Advancing age
  • Poor nutrition
  • Obesity
  • Genetic predisposition

What Happens During an Oral Cancer Screening at the Dentist Office?

Oral cancer is most likely to occur on your tongue, on your tonsils or the area of the throat visible from your open mouth, on your gums, and the “floor” of your mouth where your tongue rests.

Not all of these areas are easy to see, which is why your dentist is thorough when performing a screening. During a screening, your dentist examines the inside of your mouth and may touch your throat or neck. Inside your mouth, your dentist is looking for red or white patches or mouth sores, as well as for any lumps under your tongue or on the roof of your mouth.

Some dentists may employ the use of screening dyes or lights during their oral cancer exams. An oral cancer screening dye makes abnormal cells in your mouth appear blue. An oral cancer screening light makes healthy tissue look dark and abnormal tissue look white. Keep in mind that neither of these methods are necessary for completing a thorough oral cancer screening at a dentist office.

How Often Should I Have an Oral Cancer Screening?

The American Dental Association recommends an oral exam and teeth cleaning no less frequently than every six months. If you haven’t had an exam and cleaning within the past six months, it’s time to make an appointment for preventative care from a dentist near you. If you have dental insurance, it is likely that you can receive preventative dental care at no additional cost.

What Else Happens During My Exam?

Aside from an oral cancer screening, a few important things happen during your regular exam and cleaning, with priority on ensuring your teeth are healthy and strong.

A dental hygienist will thoroughly clean your teeth using a specialized electric toothbrush and gritty polish. The hygienist will also clean tartar and plaque build-up from your teeth and gum line. Professional tools are designed to remove food particles and bacteria that your regular toothbrush doesn’t, making the cleaning at a dentist office a very important part of your oral care routine.

Some patients may request a fluoride treatment, during which time a foamy fluoride solution is applied to your teeth for a few minutes to protect your enamel. Your dentist may also take X-rays of your teeth. As you can see, an oral cancer screening is just one small, but important part of preventative dental care.

Find Conveniently Located General Dentistry Care in Olathe, Kansas

For families looking for complete dental care and for those with dental anxiety, E-Care Dentistry in Olathe is ready to help. Our spa-like environment, state-of-the-art technology, demonstrated excellence, and years of experience make our dentist office your top choice for your preventative dental care needs. Relax in front of your own television, or go zen with meditative music as one of our skilled dentists takes care of your teeth.

Learn more about what you can expect during your office visit with a dentist near you.